Today’s burning question: Our fire department has been working on updating email servers and expanding our department email system so that all personnel can use it. Currently only our administrative personnel and officers have email accounts provided by the department. My question is, from a legal stand point would it be better to use an email forwarding system that sends work emails to firefighters’ personal email addresses or would we be better off to provide each member with a true email account on our system with log in and server space?
Answer: There are two important legal considerations to take into account in making your decision. The first is the public records implication of the decision, and the second is the “spokesperson” issue.
From a public records law perspective – employees who use their personal email accounts for business purposes may open those accounts to public records audits and scrutiny. States differ on this – but there are a number of states that say that the use of a personal email account for business purposes opens the entire account to a pubic records audit. For that reason it is always advisable to have members avoid using personal accounts for work-related emails.
As I understand how the email forwarding services work (you would know better than me) – using a forwarding service sends messages to a member’s personal email account. As such the forwarding service may unnecessarily trigger public records scrutiny into an employees personal account. I say may because simply receiving a forwarded email might not trigger a public record assuming there is a copy of the email on file on the department’s server. The problem will be if the employee responds to the work related email using their personal account. That email response will likely be a public record triggering a responsibility on the part of the employee and the department to properly archive it.
Based on this consideration, giving your employees a true email address @_______FD.com would be a big plus. It will make it easier for employees to separate their work related emails from their personal emails. The department will be able to archive emails over the account and thereby comply with any public records requirement. It will avoid the public records problem associated with email forwarding to an employee’s personal email account.
HOWEVER… and there is a big however… if the firefighters start using their @____FD.com address as their own email address for personal reasons… they may trigger other problems including one I will refer to as the “spokesperson” issue.
To explain the spokesperson issue, let’s say a given FF sends a nasty email to his ex… or someone he is upset with. Perhaps he sends a nasty email to the news media… using the FD email account…. When he does so he is inescapably connecting his private affairs directly to the fire department. He may even be perceived by some as acting in an official (spokesperson) capacity.
While this problem can be managed through a well crafted policy and training, it has to be considered when moving forward with one option or the other.
My advice is to choose between the two – understanding the risks… on the one hand opening an employee’s personal email account to public record scrutiny…. and on the other hand the potential for inadvertently becoming a spokesperson when using a FD email account. Both of these risks are manageable, you just need to make sure you train your personnel so they know the rules.
Again… each option carries risks… but the risks can be managed by educating folks about them. Keep in mind, regardless of which option you choose, work related emails will likely be considered public records, triggering responsibility on the department as well as the members to meet the requirements of the applicable public records laws.